The Map or the Fuel? Living By Grace

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Is the Christian life a life of rules? The Bible is full of commands, but it also says we’ve been freed from the law. Is that as confusing to you as it has been to me?

Last November Discipleship Journal published an article I wrote to sort out those questions. I have permission now to publish that article here. The text follows here, or you can read the PDF scan (756 Kilobytes).

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Fallen from Grace?

It was more than 15 years ago, but I can still remember where I was, alone in my car by the tennis courts in back of a high school. I was really down on myself, thinking over and over again, I’m just not measuring up! I’m just not measuring up! I had been sincerely trying to live the way I thought a Christian should, but I wasn’t succeeding. What’s wrong with me? I wondered.

My biggest problem, I’ve realized since then, was that I’d fallen from grace.

“Fallen from grace” isn’t a phrase we often apply to Christians who are trying to do their best. Usually it brings to mind a drunk in the gutter or a star executive sitting in jail after being convicted of fraud. That’s how I used to think of it. I was surprised when I discovered that the Bible uses “fallen from grace” to describe something completely different.

The phrase appears in Galatians 5:4 (ESV), where Paul wrote, “You are severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen away from grace.” (The King James Version says, “you have fallen from grace.”) These Christians were trying to be right with God, but they had the wrong approach. I too was following the wrong approach. I needed a greater understanding of what it means to live by grace.

For many believers, living by grace is a difficult concept to grasp. Yet it is key to experiencing peace and power in our walks with Christ.

Grace vs. Legalism

To understand what it means to live by grace, we first need a clear idea of what grace is and how we access it. Many Christians define grace by the acronym, “God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense.” Grace is God’s free gift to us. It’s God’s life, his love, his forgiveness and mercy extended freely to us, based entirely on the merit of Christ and not our own goodness. But this gift doesn’t come from afar, like mail-order; and it’s not a present we open and take away to enjoy on our own. God extends His grace to us through a close, living relationship with Christ. To experience His grace, we must remain united with Him in a dynamic connection, clinging as closely to him as a branch does to a vine (John 15:1-10).

That’s not how the Galatian believers were living. Yes, they were trying so hard to do everything right and follow God’s laws. Instead of experiencing closeness to Christ, however, they were “severed from [Him].” Where had they gone wrong? It was their trying so hard—and the way they were doing it—that was the problem. They had drifted into legalism.

Legalism is the opposite of living by grace. It’s based on the belief that one can be justified (attain right standing with God) by following God’s rules. Paul addressed this error throughout the book of Galatians, showing in many ways that it’s impossible to be right with God by obeying the law. We need grace.

Most evangelical Christians today know enough to avoid the most basic form of this error. We understand that our entrance into life in Christ—salvation—comes through faith in Christ alone, and not by keeping God’s law. Yet even when our theology of salvation is thoroughly grace-based, we can still fall into legalism. Colossians 2:6-7 tells us that as we have received Christ we should also walk in Him, rooted and grounded in faith. That is, the way we walk in Christ should be consistent with the way we received him.

Many times, though, we fail to extend our understanding of grace and faith past the foundation of receiving Christ, to the daily matters of following him. We begin to think that we stay right with God by keeping his rules. That’s what the Galatians were doing. After entering a relationship with God through grace, they thought they also needed to obey Jewish laws. But Paul’s instruction to them—and all believers—is clear: just as we receive salvation by faith and grace, not by following rules, we also walk in Christ by faith and grace, not by keeping a list of commands.

The Map or the Fuel?

“But wait a moment!” you say. “The commands in the Bible are there for a reason! Christians must obey these commands!”

Yes, assuredly so. God expects us to do what He tells us, which puts us almost on the cliff of a contradiction: we have commands to obey, but if we seek to be right with God by following them, we are fallen from grace. So what are we to do? How can we try to heed God’s commands and still live by grace? I’ve puzzled over this dilemma a great deal, and the key seems to lie in where we go to find the strength to carry out God’s instructions. We have to make a distinction between the picture of what is right and the power for doing it.

God’s commands are the picture: They describe how God wants us to live. But they cannot give us the power, or spiritual strength, to live that way (see Romans 7:2-23). We fall from grace when we begin to look at God’s commands, the picture of the life he wants for us, to be our power.

I did something similar on a trip I took a few months ago. After flying to Milwaukee, I rented a car to drive to Madison. I hadn’t been to either city in decades, so I knew nothing about the route. I gratefully accepted the map the rental car company offered me. In fact, since these maps were free with the rental, I asked for several dozen. I took the maps to the car, opened the gas cap, and stuffed them into the tank one by one.

Well, no, I didn’t do that. That’s a picture of a law-based approach to obeying God, though. We confuse the map with the fuel. We rely on God’s commands to be the fuel to get us to our destination, when in reality, they’re just the map of what our destination looks like. In contrast, living by grace means depending on the empowerment we receive through our relationship with Jesus Christ.

Jesus told his disciples,

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4,5, ESV)

Elsewhere, Paul tells us to “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). His word choice reflects the reality that Christ now lives in us in the person of the Holy Spirit. “The fruit of the Spirit,” he adds,

is love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23, 25)

These passages, just a few of many, show us that when we remain in close relationship with Christ through his Spirit, the Spirt will work his fruit in us, and our lives will match the picture shown by the commands. When we’re living by grace like in this way, our life and strength come from our direct, unsevered connection with Christ, not from focusing on his commands.

Still, too often we begin to rely on the rules without realizing it. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were alarms to tell us if we’re trying to run on the wrong fuel? Actually, there are.

Legalism’s Alarm Bells

I’ve identified several signals in my own life that warn me I’m drifting toward a law-based approach to life:

  • Responding to a temptation by telling myself, I shouldn’t do that! and hoping such self-talk will enable me to resist. That’s the willpower approach to handling sinful desires.
  • Trying to motivate myself to do something “because I should.” That’s the duty-based approach to right living.
  • Evaluating my standing before God based on how well I’ve been following the shoulds and the shouldn’ts: If I’ve kept all the rules on a given day, then I’m OK before God; if I haven’t, then I’m not worth much before God that day. That’s the performance-based approach to relationship with God.
  • Beating myself up over my sins because I think my anger will help me do better in the future: You idiot, Tom! Don’t you know that sin didn’t do you any good? Just remember how bad you feel now, and let that be a lesson to you next time! This is the anger-based approach to relationship with God. Certainly we can and should learn from the negative outcomes of our poor decisions. What we should learn, though, is to draw closer to Christ and his unconditional love, not to be harder on ourselves in hopes that will make us do better.
  • Hearing myself say any of these kinds of things to someone else or paying attention to someone saying it to me.

All of these responses are rule-oriented. They assume we’ll stay on the right track if we keep all the shoulds and shouldn’ts in mind strongly enough, I’ll stay on the right track.” When we approach our Christian lives in these ways, we’re not relying on relationship with Christ.

Grace Under Fire

When we most need to strengthen our relationship with God is when we feel the least qualified to come to Him: when we’re tempted, or—strange as this may sound at first—even while we’re sinning. For example, I’m prone to impatience when I’m on the highway behind a slow driver. Too often I try to handle this by telling myself, I shouldn’t be feeling so impatient. I shouldn’t be muttering at that driver; this isn’t the Christian thing to do. Thoughts like that, filled with “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”, are law-based; they have no power to help me. Soon I’m heading right toward road rage.

If you’re like me, connecting with Jesus at a time like this is the last thing on your mind. It’s terribly humbling to have to admit what’s going on inside. Superficial prayers such as, “Lord, help me be patient like I know I ought to be” seem somewhat palatable, but they don’t always bring us in close connection to Christ. That comes best by telling God what we’re really thinking and feeling. In fact, that’s exactly what I need to do when I’m under temptation, or even when I’m sinning. Anything less is cutting part of myself from Christ, his grace, and his power. The good news is that it’s okay: I can really open up toward God in prayer, and it does me good.

That kind of openness might sound something like this: “Lord, here I am, being tempted to be impatient. What’s worse, I think I have a right to be impatient. I mean, look at all these slow cars in the way. If those jerks just knew how to drive . . . and you know what? I really do think they’re being jerks. What do you think, Lord?”

A prayer like that is not pretty. There’s rebelliousness there. But when temptation hits me, when I even slide into sin, to pray that way is to make a genuine move toward abiding in Christ. As I speak to him of my weakness and admit my unruly thoughts, I open my heart toward him so his Spirit can work in me.

The closing question in that prayer—“What do you think?”—is crucial. By it I position myself to receive from the Lord. It’s a way of saying, “Jesus, even though I’m a mess, I’m willing to let you do what you want to do in me.” It’s in this type of interaction, not in the rules, that I find grace.

And it’s where I find power. God’s consistent response to these prayers is to remind me that He accepts me; that I’m a weak, fallen sinner; but that He loves to give me grace. And somehow as He assures me of these truths, the temptation fades. Its strength is broken. Anger and impatience are replaced by God’s peace. Now, if I tried to work up that feeling, all I would experience is the stress of “working up.” But by connecting with Christ in my moment of weakness, I experience both peace and victory.

Of course, maintaining closeness with Christ involves more than praying honestly in the midst of temptation. Spending time with him in prayer, in his Word, and with other believes are also important. But it’s this kind of moment-by-moment connection with Christ, even in times of testing, that will keep us living by grace and not falling from it.

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(Copyright © 2008 by Thomas A Gilson. Reproduction, including re-posting on other web sites, is prohibited without prior permission.)

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4 Responses to “ The Map or the Fuel? Living By Grace ”

  1. I have the traditional Lutheran problem. I’m good at pointing out legalism and over emphasizing grace, but not so good living in/by grace.

  2. Excellent article. Thanks for that. I’ve just been discussing the continued role of the Gospel in the lives of believers over at my blog, and this post fits right in.